California’s tough new water conservation laws allow local governments to limit outdoor watering and impose hefty fines on water wasters. If you’re rethinking your thirsty lawn, but ‘drought tolerant landscaping’ makes you think of a sea of shiny white rock and a miniature wishing well—well, it’s time to embrace xeriscaping. This water-wise technique lets you shrink your water usage to a trickle and still enjoy a lush and lovely garden.
Pronounced zir-ə-ˌskāp-ing, the method employs drought tolerant plants, mulching, and efficient irrigation to work with, not against, Stanislaus County’s Mediterranean-verging-on-desert conditions. Its techniques overlap firescaping and biodiversity, other regional concerns.
“I hate the term ‘drought tolerant,” laughs Jim Brugger, President of the North San Joaquin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.“‘Drought tolerant’ has the implication ‘I’m sacrificing something. I prefer the term ‘regionally appropriate.’”
Once homeowners break out of the green lawn habit, they find there’s a kaleidoscope of color and shape to be had from native and compatible plants. Some of Brugger’s favorites include California Fuchsia, Epilobium canum—“fantastic for hummingbirds,” offering bright orange or scarlet blooms from summer through autumn. California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum, is “covered with white flowers all summer” and is an abundant source of nectar for bees. The Desert Willow, Chilopsis linearis, with fragrant pink, purple or red flowers through spring and summer, is another hummingbird favorite.
Considering adapting your existing landscaping to a xeriscape? Ron Hoffman, owner of Riverbank’s Morris Nursery, is an enthusiast, but says there are some make-or-break considerations. “Most [drought tolerant plants] cannot take the water of being in or near a lawn. Don’t drown them.” Good drainage is key. When chosing mulch, “you don’t want bark or similar, it holds water. Rock is good.” If you’re able to start with a blank canvas, Hoffman says you still “can’t plant it and walk away and forget it. The plant’s not drought tolerant until it’s rooted,” from six months to a year after planting.
In designing your xeriscape, Jadwiga Hoffman, Morris Nursery’s horticulturalist and landscape designer, says the best landscapes “have a theme: meadow, or succulents, or by color or shape.” A theme creates a pleasing finished look, while guiding plant and other purchases and limiting costly mistakes. Consulting a landscape designer, such as are on staff at most full service nurseries, is a good first step.
The designer says renovating or installing a xeriscape is well within the average homeowner’s ability, with a bit of education, especially on drip irrigation. “Many people don’t understand how to properly use it,” she says. “[Plants] need a really good drink,” up to an hour or two soak once every two weeks, “not a few minutes here and there. Don’t tease them.”
Modesto’s Dr. Jim and Leslie Beggs and their son Spencer designed and installed their own xeriscape last winter, motivated by the poor performance of the existing lawn. “It was really thin. The only place it wanted to grow was in the flower bed,” Leslie says. Working within the City of Modesto’s water conservation program guidelines, Leslie graphed out her design, with the scale of the lot—narrow but deep—dictating the overall plan. “I wanted curving lines leading the eye around the sides.” She created a dry streambed, adding a raised berm with contrasting rock and trees as a focal point. Given the small space, “I really limited the color palette” of plant materials, Leslie says.
Son Spencer provided most of the heavy labor. “The one thing we outsourced,” he says, was the extruded concrete bed dividers. Working around his full time job, the project from removing sod to the final filling in with decorative rock took almost four months. Spencer Beggs says taking the time to do things right was a wise investment in the future. “You don’t want to cut corners” on a landscape meant to last for a decade or more.
Today, enjoying their xeriscape’s first spring, Leslie and Spencer critique their results with an eye toward the future. More lavender along the driveway and some tomatoes in a sunny spot beside the porch are on their to-do list. Right now they can take a moment to appreciate the results of their labor that rose to the test of the Central Valley’s challenging climate and created this riot of spring flowers, with the promise of many fruitful, water-wise years to come.
For more information:
California Native Plant Society: Visit cnps.org for tips on plant selection, planting, and more.
North San Joaquin Chapter:
Visit Nsj.cnps.org for useful links including nursery guide and events.
1837 Patterson Road, Riverbank
Or visit MorrisNursery.com